Looking for things to do in North Cascades National Park? Here is what you need to know!
North Cascades National Park is known to be one of the hardest National Parks to access. The main reason is that no major roads are go into it. The entire area is known as the North Cascades National Park Complex, comprised of North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
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Last Updated: February 23, 2023
About North Cascades National Park
Located less than three hours from Seattle, North Cascades National Park Complex is a protected area in the northwestern part of Washington. It encompasses over 500,000 acres and includes three units: North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
North Cascades National Park is known for its rugged, mountainous terrain, glaciers, and pristine wilderness. The park features some of the most remote and untouched wilderness areas in the United States. Visitors to the park can enjoy various outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, fishing, and wildlife watching. The park also has several iconic peaks, including Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker.
Ross Lake National Recreation Area is in the heart of the North Cascades and is known for its crystal-clear waters, scenic vistas, and abundant wildlife. Visitors to the area can explore the park’s numerous hiking trails, go fishing, or take a scenic boat tour on Ross Lake.
Lake Chelan National Recreation Area is located on the eastern edge of the North Cascades and is known for its pristine lake and scenic wilderness. The park offers a variety of outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, and boating.
Together, the three units of the North Cascades National Park Complex offer visitors a unique and unforgettable wilderness experience. The park is also an essential habitat for many plant and animal species, including grizzly bears, gray wolves, and bald eagles.
Fun Facts About North Cascades National Park
- North Cascades National Park is known as the American Alps.
- Besides Alaska, the North Cascades Range has the most extensive glacial system in the US. There are over 300 glaciers in the park.
- It is 4th among the least visited National Parks, with 17,855 visitors in 2021.
- Mount Baker, the park’s most famous peak, is a volcano and one of the world’s most heavily glaciated mountains.
- The park is also home to several Native American tribes, including the Upper Skagit and the Sauk-Suiattle, who have lived here for thousands of years.
- North Cascades National Park is one of only three national parks in Washington, along with Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park.
What You Need to Know Before You Go
- Three Sections: North Cascades National Park, the Chelan Lake National Recreational Area (which includes Stehekin), and Ross Lake National Recreational Area.
- Only One Paved Road: To access the park, there is only one paved road, State Route 20 aka North Cascades Highway. The road only takes you through Ross Lake National Recreation Area, where most visitors spend their time.
- Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit North Cascades is mid-June to September. Weather is unpredictable, so most roads are closed through the extended winter from November to April. Fall colors are best from late September to October, but the weather can be a toss-up.
- How Long Do I Need: You can see the highlights and pull-outs in one full day, but you’ll only see a small percentage of the park, especially since you can’t access two sections of the complex by road. Give yourself three or more days to see more of the park.
- Entrance Fees: There is no entrance booth or fee to enter the national park. You need a Northwest Forest Pass ($5/day or $30/annual) if you want to hike through the adjacent national forests. It helps to pick it up beforehand.
- Fuel Up: North Cascades has no gas stations, so fill up your tank before entering.
- Cell Service: There is little to no service in the park. We always download offline maps from Google and use Alltrails+ to access trail maps offline. If you want to be extra safe, have a physical map in the car too.
- Where to Stay: There are two lodges in the park, and both are not accessible by road. There are tons of camping, including car camping, boat camping, group camping, backcountry, and wilderness camping.
- Food is Limited: We recommend packing food or picking up anything you need in Burlington.
7 Best Things to DO in North Cascades national Park
1. Take a Scenic Drive on the North Cascades Highway
376 Newhalem St, Marblemount, WA 98267, map
Since this is the only paved road in the park, you will undoubtedly see at least a portion of the 30 miles that travels east to west along the Skagit River. This isn’t simply a way to get through the park through! Along the way, there are beautiful overlooks, short hikes, and stunning lakes to visit. You’ll also find the Visitor Center along the highway.
Pro Tip: Before heading out, check the current road conditions.
2. Diablo Lake Vista Point
Diablo Lake Vista Point was our favorite stop! It is absolutely stunning and the lake’s unique blue-green color comes from the melting glaciers’ silt.
If you’re looking for something more adventurous, you can kayak, SUP, or canoe in the lake too. You can enter the water from one of the surrounding campsites or the boat launch area near the campground entrance. We’ll definitely bring our inflatable SUP out with us next time.
Pro Tip: The lake’s color pops the most during the middle of the day when the sun is bright.
3. Ross Lake Overlook / Ross Lake Resort
Although this view isn’t quite as stunning as Diablo Lake, it’s a quick stop and you get to check out Ross Lake. There are two pullouts for this overlook and you can see Desolation Peak in the distance.
If you’re looking to do more than just the overlook, you can check out the Ross Dam Trail or the Desolation Peak Trail. Did you know that Jack Kerouac spent time here in the 50s and wrote Desolation Angels from his experience here?
You can also visit one of the two resorts in the park here. To get to Ross Lake Resort, you will start at the Ross Dam Trailhead, hike 1 mile, head to the lake, and use the phone there to request a shuttle ride across the lake ($3pp each way). Once you arrive, you can rent boats or go fishing.
4. Gorge Lake Overlook
Stop by Gorge Lake Overlook to get views of the Skagit Gorge and Gorge Dam. There is a short 0.25-mile round-trip walk from the parking lot to the overlook, and you can continue walking on the trail for more views of the river.
5. Washington Pass Overlook / Washington Pass Observation Site
This isn’t technically within the National Park Complex, but it is the highest point on the scenic highway which gives you amazing views of Highway 20 and Liberty Bell Mountain. There is a short 0.25-mile hike roundtrip to the overlook.
6. Visit Stehekin
Only accessible by boat, plane, or foot, Stehekin is a small community located on the northern end of Lake Chelan, the third deepest lake in the United States. There are only 75 permanent residents, which makes it a perfect quiet getaway. Once you arrive, you can explore the lake, go camping, and learn about the area’s history.
If you’re looking to stay in Stehekin, make reservations before arriving. That includes lodges, campgrounds, and backcountry camps. There are also limited food and grocery options, so you must plan ahead and pack out what you pack in.
Pro Tip: You will need at least two days to visit Stehekin. See more details and how to plan your visit here.
7. Hike One of the Trails
One of the best ways to experience the park is on foot. Since only one road takes you through the park, you will miss some of the best spots if you don’t want to hike. Here are some of the most popular hikes.
- Ladder Creek Falls Trail, Ross Lake NRA (easy | 0.5 miles loop | 72 ft elevation gain)
- Ross Dam Trail, Ross Lake NRA (easy | 1.4 miles out and back | 360 ft elevation gain)
- Happy Creek Falls, Ross Lake NRA (moderate | 2.2 mi out and back | 620 ft elevation gain)
- Thunder Knob Trail, Ross Lake NRA (moderate | 3.4 miles out and back | 674 ft elevation gain)
- Diablo Lake Trail, Ross Lake NRA (moderate | 7.2 miles out and back | 1,512 ft elevation gain)
- Thunder Creek Trail, Ross Lake NRA (moderate | 10.3 miles out and back | 1,305 elevation gain)
- Thornton Lakes Trail, Ross Lake NRA (hard | 10.9 miles out and back | 3,057 elevation gain)
- Cascade Pass Trail, North Cascades NP (moderate | 6.7 miles out and back | 1,784 ft elevation gain)
- Gorge Creek Falls Trail, North Cascades NP (easy | 0.5 miles loop | 39 ft elevation gain)
- Skagit River Loop Trail, North Cascades NP (easy | 1.9 miles loop | 95 ft elevation gain)
- Sourdough Mountain Lookout, North Cascades NP (hard | 9.i miles out and back | 5,055 ft elevation gain)
- Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk, North Cascades NP (easy | 0.6 miles out and back | 26 ft elevation gain)
- Agnes Gorge Trail, Lake Chelan NRA (moderate | 4.7 miles out and back | 600 ft elevation gain)
- Chelan Lakeshore Trail, Lake Chelan NRA (moderate | 13.6 miles out and back | 2,421 ft elevation gain)
- Purple Creek Trail, Lake Chelan NRA (hard | 14.2 miles out and back | 5,994 ft elevation gain)
- Rainbow Loop Trail, Lake Chelan NRA (moderate | 8.7 miles out and back | 2,293 ft elevation gain)
BONUS: Picture Lake
This spot isn’t within the National Park, but if you search for photos of the North Cascades, you’ll most likely see a photo from Picture Lake. The lake itself is in Mount Baker National Forest, and in the photos, you’ll see Mount Shuksan in the background, which is in the National Park.
Pro Tip: Remember that the drive from Picture Lake to North Cascades National Park will take 2.5 hours because there is no direct route.
More THings to Do in Cascades National Park
- Backpacking – one of the best ways to experience the park
- Climbing – mixed mountaineering, sport climbing, and bouldering
- Fishing – lots of different options
- Diablo Lake, Gorge Lake, & Ross Lake: cutthroat trout, eastern brook trout, and Rainbow trout
- Lake Chelan: Burbot, golden trout, kokanee, lake trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass
- Skagit River: coastal cutthroat trout, eastern brook trout, golden trout, Steelhead
- Stehekin River: Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, salmon (the only river in Washington that has all 5 species of salmon including Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye)
- Horseback Riding
- Hozomeen – as one of two National Parks that share a border with Canada, Hozeomeen campground is right at the border and most easily accessed from Canada
- Ranger Programs
- Stargazing – the remote location makes it a prime night sky viewing area
- Whitewater Rafting
- Wildlife Viewing – the park is full of wildlife, including mule deer, marmots, coyotes, black bears, mountain goats, pikas, golden eagles, elk, moose, wolverine, gray wolves, grizzly bears, and more
Map of THings to Do in North Cascades National Park
Where to Eat in Cascades National Park
Food options are limited within the park. It’s best to come prepared with the food that you need. We haven’t been to any of the spots listed below, so let us know what you think if you do.
Where to Stay in Cascades National Park
If you are looking to camp, there are a few options:
- Colonial Creek North Campground (41 sites, $24/ night, open mid-May to early September)
- Colonial Creek South Campground (96 sites, $24/ night, open mid-May to early September)
- Goodell Creek Campground (19 sites, $20/night, open year-round)
- Gorge Lake Campground (8 sites, $20/night, open year-round)
- Hozomeen (75 sites, requires a backcountry permit)
- Lower Goodell Creek Group Campground (2 sites, $75/night, open mid-May to early September)
- Newhalem Creek Campground (107 sites, $24/ night, open mid-May to early September)
There are also boat-in campsites that you can find here.
Search the map below for more nearby hotels and rentals.
Essential Tips for First Timers
- Plan Ahead: North Cascades National Park is a remote area with limited services and facilities. It’s important to plan your trip ahead of time and make reservations for camping or lodging if needed. Check the park’s website for the most up-to-date info.
- Bring Appropriate Gear: The weather in North Cascades National Park can be unpredictable, so it’s important to bring appropriate gear. This includes waterproof clothing, sturdy hiking boots, and warm layers for cooler temperatures.
- Be Prepared for Wildlife Encounters: North Cascades National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including bears, mountain goats, and elk. Make sure you know how to safely store your food and dispose of trash to avoid attracting animals to your campsite.
- Take Advantage of the Hiking Trails: The park has over 400 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy day hikes to multi-day backpacking trips. Make sure to bring a map and know your limits when planning a hike.
- Respect the Wilderness: North Cascades National Park is a wilderness area, and visitors should respect the natural environment. This includes packing out all trash and following Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the land.
- Cascade Loop Scenic Byway: If you’re visiting from Seattle, you can pass through the park via the Cascade Loop Scenic Byway. It’s a 440-mile drive around Washington that showcases the most scenic and diverse landscapes the state has to offer. See the map below.
Have you been? What were your favorite things to do in North Cascades National Park? If you haven’t, what are you looking forward to most?
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust
Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.